Under the new European regulation ushered in through the official journal on Tuesday, only foods that contain less than 20 parts of gluten in a million will be allowed to use the term 'gluten-free' on their packaging.
For the food industry, the new rules from Brussels represent a distinct departure from current protocol. Manufacturers have looked to the Codex international standard for gluten-free foods that states any foods using the term 'gluten-free' had to have less than 200 parts of gluten per million of finished product - a figure that represents ten times the quantity imposed by the new EU rules this week.
Gluten, the common name for the natural proteins found in wheat, barley and rye, can provoke a reaction in consumers suffering from coeliac disease.
In recent years the food industry has increasingly targeted this 'free-from' arena, with figures from market analysts Mintel demonstrating the overall 'free-from' market has already enjoyed annual sales growth of over 300 per cent since 2000.
"The new lower limit of 20 parts in a million means greater peace of mind for people with a gluten intolerance, as they can be sure that foods sold as 'gluten free' do not contain levels that could be harmful to them," commented Sue Hattersley, head of food allergy policy at the UK's Food Standards Agency.
Tightening labelling criteria even further, under the fresh European legislation some foods made using cereals that have been specially processed to remove most of the gluten, but which contain less than 100 parts of gluten in a million, will be able to make the claim 'very low gluten' on the packaging. These include substitutes of certain staple foods such as bread.
Manufacturers can use the new labelling system immediately, but products do not have to comply with the new rules until 1 January 2012.
Adoption of the European regulation may require some re-labelling of products, and consequently some costs to business. The claims which this regulation controls are voluntary claims in order to allow manufacturers to clearly highlight one particular property of their product to the consumer.
Many products that are specially manufactured to be gluten-free already make such claims, so no re-labelling would be required.
But products specifically processed to slice away their gluten content may need to be re-labelled as 'very low gluten' to comply with the new regulation. In addition, the ordinary foods that manufacturers wish to label to indicate suitability for coeliacs may also need to be relabelled to comply with the new regulation.
The FSA estimates such re-labelling costs could be up to £1000 per affected product.
However, the watchdog claims that the transition periods available (three years from adoption which the UK has negotiated) should allow such costs to be absorbed in routine label changes.
Some manufacturers may need, or choose, to reformulate specific products in cases where they are not compliant with the compositional requirements of the regulation in order to continue to make the associated claims.
"Such a decision would be based on business considerations, as it may incur ongoing costs, although practical/technical restraints may also have a bearing on this," writes the FSA.
The proposed rule from the Commission Regulation will not stop products labelled as 'gluten free' or 'very low gluten' being placed on the market, provided they comply with all the provisions.
If products cannot be reformulated or re-labelled to comply with the new requirements they will have to be re-labelled in a manner that the claims are not made. But the FSA is upbeat, deeming late last year that it "does not consider that any product withdrawal would be necessary."